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There are many people who are skeptical about travel rewards. Too often, they’ve earned points or miles only to find there were no awards available, and just given up in frustration. But like so many other things in life, award travel is a skill that needs to be mastered, not just a button that you can click to receive what you want.

The Three Types of Travel Rewards Credit Cards

The first step towards learning how to fly for free is to understand the different types of travel reward credit cards.

Airline Reward Credit Cards

These are the cards most people think of when they imagine a card that offers airline awards. Typically you’ll earn one point or mile per dollar spend on most purchases, and double points or miles on charges to the airline. Thankfully, some airline cards are now offering bonuses for specific purchases like restaurants or gas, like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®.

These cards are a good fit for airline loyalists who want to earn rewards with a single carrier. These cards are also a fit for those committed to a single airline as they can offer perks like free checked bags or discounts on in-flight purchases like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.

Fixed-Value Cards

These cards offer you rewards that can be redeemed as statement credits towards any travel reservation. This includes not just any airline, but also hotels, car rentals, cruises and tours. The advantage here is that there’s no limitations to what you can redeem your rewards for. But on the other hand, you’ll never get more than a fixed value per point or mile redeemed, usually one cent each. This can make flights in business or first class cost a huge amount of rewards, just like it does when paying with dollars. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is a great example of a fixed value travel rewards card.

Convertible-Points Cards

These cards offer rewards that can be transferred to miles with several different carriers. They also have the advantage of offering bonus points on select purchases. For example, the Citi Premier℠ Card offers you 3x points on travel and gas, 2x points at restaurants and on entertainment, and one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Points can be redeemed for travel reservations or transferred to miles with several different frequent flyer programs. The disadvantage of these cards is that they don’t provide airline specific perks like free checked bags or priority service.

Other Tips for Earning Free Travel

Unless you’re earning fixed-value rewards, you have to look at frequent flyer redemptions differently than you do purchasing a ticket with cash. For example, you should try to plan your award travel as far in advance as possible, and be as flexible as you can with the dates of travel, your destination or both.

You also have to consider that it can be hard to find multiple award seats on the same plane, so families can have a difficult time with award travel. The big exceptions to this issue are the frequent flyer programs of Southwest and JetBlue that offer all of their seats at a relatively fixed price that reflects their sale price.

By taking some time to understand how different types of travel rewards credit cards work, you can learn how to travel the world for nearly no price at all.

Intro image by sippakorn via Shutterstock
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